Joseph Calata: The Seeds and Feeds of Success

MANILA, Philippines - Mind the 31-year-old with the upswept, tall hair. He wants to rule the world – well, the Philippine agricultural world, at least. You’d be forgiven for doing a double take and scratching your head at the sight. The guy looks more like a rocker than a CEO, that’s for sure.

Then he’ll smile and hand out his card that says he is president and chief executive officer of Calata Corporation –– only the biggest distributor of agro-chemicals, fertilizers, seeds, feeds and veterinary medicines in the Philippines. Seriously.

Consider that Joseph “Josh” Calata’s namesake, Calata Corp., raked in revenues close to P2 billion in 2010. It sits comfortably as the 721st in BizNewsAsia magazine’s reckoning of the top 1,000 corporations in the Philippines. Josh smiles and says that this figure actually represents a modest dip from the year-ago level (and a slip in rankings from 595th). “We reached P 1.8 billion in 2009,” he maintains. “If it weren’t for La Niña, we would have experienced growth.”

The beginning is a very good place to start, as that musical so simply put it. It all started in 2001. For Josh, it must seem like a lifetime ago.

Shortly after Calata finished his Management of Financial Institutions course from De La Salle University, his parents Eusebio and Isabel conscripted the newly minted graduate for work at the family business, J Melvin’s –– a middling retail store incorporated under the name Planters Choice Agro Products. His mandate was simple: to peddle agricultural products in Plaridel, Bulacan.

Josh found the enterprise, though successful in its own right, a tedious and flawed operation. “It relied heavily on trust. This is good, but not all the time,” he says. “I saw glaring gaps in the system –– or lack thereof. It didn’t take me long to realize that a lot of things could fall through the cracks. I knew then that while we were making a good living, there was a lot of potential that remained unexplored.”

It didn’t take the young Calata long to see that people are weighed down by multiple tasks, and that there was no auditing in place  –– robust or otherwise. He wanted to hit the books, or better yet, make one. “I procured an accounting software and worked on customizing it for us,” he shares.

Some people in the enterprise – including his parents –– weren’t exactly too thrilled with his personal project, but Josh only used that to fuel the fire in his belly. “That spurred me on, actually. Imagine, my mom even resisted my request to buy a P2,000 printer!” Josh shares with a smile. “I desperately wanted to prove that I was right; that this was the way to go.”

Burning the midnight oil well into early mornings. Josh labored to tailor the accounting software to the company’s unique needs. “I’m not a computer person, so I had to learn everything on the fly. I went through inputting every product, every transaction,” he shares.

When that’s in place, the program indeed revealed the operational and financial inconsistencies in the company processes from collection to inventory. “You can’t cheat the program. It won’t balance if it’s not balanced,” Josh declares.

Birth pains

Customers are in good hands, that’s for sure. Josh, to this day, insists that every transaction pass through him and his now omniscient program. But it wasn’t all roses in the beginning.

“I know for a fact that people started talking behind my back, and they were even telling my parents that I was bad for business, but I was adamant,” he recalls. “Never mind that our sales slowed down as long as I was certain that we weren’t being cheated of earnings.”

To ease the burden of having to work at it alone, Calata enlisted a computer-savvy friend to set up a network. “And then there were two of us. I didn’t have to do everything myself!” he narrates.

The turning point came when the program was able to prevent a costly double-payment of P100,000 a few years back. “People began to appreciate that an orderly system would ensure good business.” He also hired a roving salesman.

Before long, sales started to snowball –– which, in turn, called for more people in the team. The organization now had specialists in place of its former roster of generalists. The corporatization and professionalization of the venture was well under way.

Mom-and-pop no more

Today, The Calata Corp. stands tall as a continuing tale of how one Joseph Calata envisions and delivers on his promises and dreams. “One should always be ready to roll up his sleeves and buckle down to work,” he says. “At the same time, someone told me that I needed to let go in order for my business to grow. I certainly couldn’t have done it myself.”

Indeed, the mom-and-pop operation has now evolved into a true conglomerate with ever diversifying interests in high-efficiency poultry and breeder growing, and construction. From a meager manpower complement of five, the Calata Corp. now employs more than 500, as it continues in an inevitable upward trajectory. There are a total of 80 retail stores in total (branded “Agri”) –– in Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, La Union, Ilocos Sur, Isabela, Bulacan, Bataan and Isabela –– and Josh expects an expansion rate of 100 per year.

When asked if the industry can sustain this kind of growth, Josh quickly replies: “The market is big and stores are few.”

Aside from applying the same operational paradigm that involved a once small family enterprise into a dizzyingly big business, Calata has changed the agricultural product retail game entirely –– rewriting the manual, as it were.

Agri, for instance, features a convenience store approach that has raised the level of service and experience for buyers. He has also seen to the “professionalization” of the sale.

Josh quickly adds that Agri fights fair. “I’m not doing anything illegal or unfair. I don’t undercut prices. It’s about the extras. In the final analysis, it’s the consumer that benefits with the improved services. Previously, there was nothing glamorous or slick about our industry. We showed them that it could be. Good business sense trumps all. Good practices mean business growth.”

Calata Corp. also holds contracts for breeding and supplying poultry and, just recently, hogs. Just early this year, 1,100 breeding sows were imported from Canada to be housed in an Isabela farm.

The company also operates farms in Bukidon, Davao and Cagayan de Oro. “We were lucky not to have been affected by Typhoon Sendong because of the property’s high elevation,” Josh says.

With the tremendous blessings sent the way of Josh and his Calata Corp., he has seen it fit to conduct corporate social responsibility work. Just some of the beneficiaries are Gawad Kalinga, Child Protection Network, Fashion Watch, Empowering Brilliant Minds Foundation, Red Cross, Haribon Foundation and the NBI Foundation.

“Part of doing good business is doing good,” he insists.

As for the personal, the eligible bachelor professes to love swimming, playing poker and going on road trips –– usually in his Mercedes-Benz CLK 500. He also plays the piano and guitar, and welcomes opportunities to kick back at home to watch movies.

Still, no amount of success seems enough to make this young tycoon rest on his laurels. For all it’s worth, accolades have actually inspired him to dream bigger. This is proven by his aggressive, albeit cautious, attempts at going public this year.

Today, even as he keeps tabs on the business, he has relinquished some control of the corporation to focus on expansion. Josh relishes his role as dealmaker and visionary for Calata Corp. and is proud of the fact that his success has enabled his parents to retire from the venture.

How many 31-year-olds do you know of who can brag of the same? Watch this Josh closely. Closer now.


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